Why I define environmental injustice as undeserved entitlement

Some entitlements are deserved: added respect and deference for those who have dedicated their lives to the common good; accommodation for the elderly, pregnant women, children, and those who need it; respect for those who have sacrificed their own good and interests for those of (especially underserved) others.

We have all sorts of entitlements: ambassadors don’t have to be responsible for infractions and misdemeanors in most countries; the rich buy lawyers that can help exculpate them from crimes ranging from pedophilia rings (Epstein) to murder (O.J. Simpson), to genocide and medical cruelty (Trump’s immigrant death camps and medical experiments).

Somehow, we willy-nilly accept these sorts of entitlements – by virtue of them actually occurring, the fact that these monsters have gotten away with it. Meanwhile, our society locks up indigenous protestors protecting the water sources for millions of people, Black children get shot to death by police in America, and in the Netherlands, people with ‘foreign’ sounding names get pegged for child benefit fraud (this very claim the result of racist fraud).

So, what does this have to do with undeserved entitlement? And environmental (in)justice?

If historically advantaged minorities create two-tiered legal and moral systems preventing others from getting away with the crimes they enjoy with impunity, this gives them undeserved entitlements. Undeserved, because these entitlements are predicated on their wealth, power, and authority derived from colonialism, violence, and harming others. If you agree as I do, that no just society could have billionaires, just as no just society could have dictators because even if they are benevolent or philanthropic ones, at any given time they could easily ‘flip’ and arbitrarily exercise power harming others according to their will and caprice, then clearly these forms of power and authority lead to undeserved entitlements.

Just as we view as noxious mafias exercising their own form of illegitimate extrajudicial power, the judicial and extrajudicial powers of economic elites too should be reframed as abuses of illegitimate power. Illegitimate because economic hoarding has precisely zero correlation with largess, beneficence, magnanimity, or any virtue, for that matter.

After 20 years of meditating on the subject, I’ve noticed one thing: health inequalities and environmental destruction have a single source: in exclusion. Gated communities and sacrifice zones are predicated on opting out of a shared fate. The idea of expendables, that these people will have to fend for themselves while we do what we can to protect ours, leads to further eroding the social and ecological commons we all rely on for survival and meaning-making. As long as we can throw others under the bus to get ahead, those with the means to do so and get away with it will continue to do so. The moment we agree that such corrupt and cruel action will not be permitted under any circumstances and punished by stripping offenders of their means to commit such crimes, our ecological and social commons will regenerate and improve, making things better for all — and especially the historically most discriminated against.

If it weren’t for the separation of pollution into the categories of those subject to it and those profiting off it, pollution wouldn’t exist. That’s why I strongly advocate that anyone making money off of contaminating processes should be those most exposed to the contamination. In such a scenario, we’d see how long pollution would continue.